When dad was dying of prostate cancer last winter, our family spent a lot of long nights in the University of Alberta Hospital (UAH). I’d always thought of this great, busy hospital as a city within a city, but I’d never spent much time in this city at night. I got to know it intimately.
Like most cities at night, UAH has its zones where the noise and craziness gather. They’re called nursing stations. Nursing is, of course, one of the toughest jobs on the planet (I know because I married a nurse), and sometimes you see it get to people. Several nights running, an old man down the hall kept shouting “Get me out of here!” on endless repeat, and one of the nursing aides started loudly mimicking him. It was either that or quit, I suppose. One little old lady kept coming out of her room to complain that the dressing on her head was messing up her hairdo and could they please be dears and take it off. I should add that while there were one or two proverbial battle-axes, most of the hospital staff were angels of mercy whose kindness and patience we’ll never forget.
The way things worked out, I usually had the late shift at my dad’s bedside. During the times he was sleeping comfortably, I would take a break and get a coffee or just go for a walk to stretch my legs. I’d always had a mild fear of hospitals at night, from childhood memories of staying at the spooky old relic in my hometown of Grande Prairie. So I felt a little like I would if I was walking on some dark downtown street.
I met nurses and other hospital workers going about their business or taking breaks, eating their late-shift lunches, watching television, slumped alone in nooks, looking exhausted. I came across people, like footsore pilgrims, shuffling along in those flimsy gowns with their IV poles. Sometimes I would see a figure at the other end of a long corridor and it was like I was seeing a reflection of myself.
The hospital’s odd design allows you to see into people’s rooms, if they have the curtains open. I confess to being a peeping Tom, wondering about the lives of these people. The most moving sight was seeing a parent sleeping on a cot in the atrium outside the pediatrics ward.
When they told us dad probably only had a couple of days left, they moved him to a private room. We finally had our own apartment in this overcrowded city. This made the last hours a little easier to bear.
After dad died, the room wasn’t ours anymore, so we left that city and went home to our own.
Thomas Wharton was born in Grande Prairie. His first novel, Icefields, won the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize for Best First Book, Canada/Caribbean division. A collection of short fiction, The Logogryph, was shortlisted for the IMPAC-Dublin Prize. His most recent book is Every Blade of Grass, a novel told in letters. He lives in Edmonton with his wife and three children, and teaches creative writing at the University of Alberta.